America's second-largest Protestant denomination is hurting. At its 10-day quadrennial conference, the United Methodist Church took a firm stand on the issue that most divides it, but the outcome is unlikely to end the tumult that has beset the church over the past three years.
Amid a host of other issues, delegates to the Cleveland meeting resolved the long-standing debate over homosexuality by voting, by 2- to-1 margins, to reaffirm all church policies. And they rejected language that would have acknowledged a diversity of views within the church. The decisive actions, after emotional debate, left a deeply grieved minority. The question now is how local congregations and other church bodies will deal with the outcome and with a renewed push by gay-rights advocates.
Three Methodist pastors have already indicated their intent to go ahead with same-sex union ceremonies, which in the past have resulted in church trials. And Soulforce, an ecumenical group committed to civil disobedience in support of sexual minorities, has announced a four-year strategy leading up to the next Methodist general conference. The group will also press for change in June and July at meetings of the Presbyterian and Episcopal churches.
Methodist policy says homosexuals are persons of sacred worth, but that the practice is incompatible with Christian teaching; and no practicing homosexual can be ordained. For the majority, the outcome confirms historical teachings. "I hope this gives us freedom to focus on ministry," says the Rev. Maxie Dunnam, of Wilmore, Ky. Mabel Cummings, member of a native American Methodist church in Prospect, N.C., says, "If the language had been repealed, many people would have left our church, or stopped giving money to it."
"I support the church's position," says the Rev. Jimmy Ormon from Brookhaven, Miss., but "it was gut-wrenching to hear how people's lives are affected."
One young gay delegate, whose father and grandfather are both Methodist pastors, and a delegate with a gay son reminded voters they were dealing with people's lives. Some ministers are particularly concerned. "As I return to my district, I'm keenly aware that the body is lacerated, and there will be a need for a lot of care and pastoral work," says …